Sometimes the best way to get government to do something is just do it yourself. That's a strategy I previously used in posting data from the SEC on the Internet. I ran the database for a couple of years, then put a little sign up saying the service would terminate in 60 days. The SEC got it right away that free markets are based on information and started running the service. I tried the same trick on the Patent Office, but that is a much less clueful bunch when it comes to subversive goals like promoting the dissemination of knowledge, and I had to harass them for a few more years.
For my OSCON talk, I was hoping to have a big aha announcement about another database that has bugged me for years. When I ran a radio station, we used Hack 1 ("Be Media") to get Congressional Press Credentials and put out live feeds from the floors of the House and Senate. What you might call a webcast today, though we didn't actually have a web server running when we started doing that.
I left my Congressional Credentials behind in 1996, figuring that it was only a matter of time until Congress got it together and put audio and video from all their hearings out on the net, both live and as a permanent archive. Washington is the most self-important city in the world and I figured the U.S. Congress thought enough of itself that it would go to extra lengths to promote transparency and increase the ability of informed citizens to participate in our government.
When I went back to Washington in early 2005 to become CTO of the Center for American Progress, my main job was to help my boss John Podesta build a clueful technical presence at his DC think tank. But, John gave me a long leash, so I dreamed up the idea of creating a new nonprofit that would get Congressional credentials and put broadcast quality video out live on the net in nonproprietary formats and would create a permanent archive. I figured if we did that for 3-5 years, Congress would have no choice but take over the service.
I created a business plan and spent over a year knocking on doors trying to get it funded. I talked to C-SPAN, thinking they might actually see a service like this as a good thing, allowing them to concentrate on original programming. In any case, there might be as many as a dozen simultaneous hearings on the hill, so I thought they might welcome the extra pair of hands to cover the stuff below their radar, kind of a minor league team if you will. C-SPAN declined to participate.
I went out to Silicon Valley, and got pledges from Cisco that if I could get the thing funded, they'd donate the $2 million in routers it would take to establish a clueful Internet presence. I got the head of the Government Printing Office to write a nice letter saying this was a Good Thing™. I went and saw Scott McNealy and Jonathan Schwartz at Sun Microsystems who said they'd love to loan us a bunch of big boxes if we got the thing funded. I gave a tech talk at Google, and on it went. I felt like a .com CEO pitching a business plan, only I was pitching a nonprofit and rarely used the term Web 2.0™.
In the end though, you have to follow the money. If you're building infrastructure from scratch, you either pay for stuff or get it given to you. I pitched this to the telcos to get some free fiber runs, but got one of those "are you nuts" looks from Verizon's lobbyists and the AT&T crowd was too busy merging and submerging and stuff to pay attention. So, we were going to have to get money to pay for fiber, plus something to pay a core staff. In the end, while everybody is in favor of transparency, it just wasn't a fundable thing. One foundation told me that open government was out and participatory media was in. I told them we were going to put a bunch of XMPP chat rooms on top of the video streams and close the feedback loop into the hill, but that wasn't You enough. Like VCs, foundations go through cycles, and sometimes you're in the wrong space.
I've still got hope for this hack though. This is something government should be doing. A hearing isn't public if you can't see it, and that means on the Internet in broadcast quality with a permanent archive. Today, you have to hope C-SPAN covers the hearing, but you're not allowed to use the material. Or, maybe the committee does a little 10fps 320x240 proprietary stream which stays around for only a little while. The Internet gets several hundred thousand new pieces of video uploaded every day. It would be great if the U.S. Congress could join the kids on MySpace, YouTube, Google Video, and the Internet Archive in preserving content for posterity.